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  • Anita Ashok Adalja

AS FARMERS, WE ARE PRESSED ON BOTH ENDS . . .

by Anita Ashok Adalja


to make a living for ourselves and our hired crew and to provide food to a country that is paying much less than what it actually costs to produce it.


While this is undoubtedly an unfair hardship on farmers, we also hold a deep responsibility and obligation, which is to acknowledge our privilege even in these circumstances and not to translate those hardships into oppression onto our labor force.


This may read as cold and unempathetic in its simplicity, but we do not need to overcomplicate the message. Farm owners and operators must accept that they possess certain privileges and power that the labor force does not: building capital, business ownership, the potential for profit, year-round work, social capital, authority, land access, and more. What they are obligated to offer their employees who are quite literally giving their bodies to this work is not to perpetuate oppression rooted in agriculture's enslavement practices. Even though agricultural laws provide exemptions, this type of exploitation is based on racism - both historical and present - and employers have a social and moral contract as humans to not run a business on the exploitation of fellow human bodies.


While offering non-monetary benefits (housing, food from the farm, etc.) is appreciated, it is not a substitute for fair wages for workers who are almost always unable to build their own capital while building their employer’s operation. In fact, many government and non-profit grants and loans do not extend to workers.


When employers choose to pay a minimum wage, the message to workers is that leadership would pay less if they legally could. Because of minimum wage exemptions in some states in the agriculture sector, farm owners can pay even less than the federally mandated minimum wage. What statement does that send to workers on operations about their worth and the farm owner’s opinion of them? Farm operations are only as strong as the labor behind them, and compensation for that labor needs to reflect that reality.


These harsh realities for farm owners and workers alike are not evidence of a broken food system - it was designed and built under the capitalist notion that growth is built on the backs of others. In farming, that means the suppression of wages, prioritizing profit over sustainability, extracting from those lower down the food chain, and more.


Mutual Aid is one response to the rigged food system and our government ignoring pleas from small farmers. Examples of Mutual Aid have emerged across the country to counter these oppressive systems, from childcare to healthcare to legal services. The government is not coming to our aid and we are past the time of waiting for action, so we must instead take it into our own hands and live our values.


This is an opportunity for farmers to do the same. Local campaigns like the Tompkins County Living Wage Campaign, private business commitments like Good Food Jobs instituting the $15/hr wage for all job postings and National nonprofit efforts like the Farmworker Justice Fair Labor Standards Act and the Agriculture Justice Project - can help to lead us to collective action. Instead of saying that it’s impossible to meet the wage, we can be expansive and creative in how we approach this challenge. Let’s talk with each other and live the solutions together. We can learn from farm operations that have broken the cycle of agricultural oppression and are paying a fair wage for labor.


If you are one of those operations and have insight to share, please share your story!


Many of us have gone through this exploitation and been abused as workers, and perhaps some are now farm owners themselves. Please remember a necessary part of healing from that trauma is to stop perpetuating it. Let this be an invitation to us all to reject the myth that the only way to succeed in farming in this country is to pay unlivable wages and ask workers to sacrifice it all for the sake of a farm that is not theirs.


Anita Ashok Adalja

Founder of the Not Our Farm project


Not Our Farm (NOF) works to support and bring visibility to the workers on farm operations. The hands of these workers are often unseen and their stories untold in our American farming culture, but they are no doubt the hearts of any operation. NOF is a combination of story sharing and advocacy and strives to collectively reimagine the future of worker-centered farming.


Follow their work on Instagram @notourfarm


photo by Anita Ashok Adalja


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